It was an Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, who definitively captured in words the magic that attends a great horse race. In his poem “At Galway Races” (1909) he wrote:
There where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind.
In Australia on Tuesday, they almost had it all. There was a great horse race — the Melbourne Cup. There was delight in abundance. There was even a Yeats — not the poet, but a horse, an Irish 5-year-old that was among the favorites for this year’s running of the most prestigious handicap, over its distance, in the world. But it wasn’t Yeats that thrilled the huge crowd at the finish line. Nor was it local favorite Tawqeet, slowed by a training injury. Instead, a pair of Japanese stablemates, Delta Blues and Pop Rock, battled it out for first place in an utterly magical moment for Japanese horse racing.
For a hint of the excitement packed into the finish, here’s how the announcer called it: “Pop Rock coming at him. Japan one, two. Pop Rock trying to get to Delta Blues. They come to the line, oh, very close. Delta Blues maybe a nose to Pop Rock. Very little between them. Four lengths to Maybe Better in front then of Zipping.”
And so it proved: Delta Blues first, by a dip of the head, Pop Rock second. The result made Melbourne Cup history, marking Japan’s first-ever win in the “race that stops a nation” and just the third win for a horse from outside Australia or New Zealand. It was also only the ninth time since the Cup was first run in 1861 that a trainer has taken the quinella. Delta Blues and Pop Rock are both trained by the formidable Katsuhiko Sumii.
“We feel as if we are on the moon,” Mr. Sumii said through an interpreter after the race. No doubt the interpreter misspoke, and Mr. Sumii actually said he felt over the moon, as the English idiom has it. Overjoyed. Jubilant. Or as Delta Blues’ jockey, Yasunari Iwata, put it in his halting but wonderfully succinct English as his mount was returned to the scale: “Very happy, super horse.” Certainly, neither they nor the man who bred both horses, Katsumi Yoshida, need feel they are “on the moon” — outsiders feeling their way in a cold, alien environment — when it comes to international racing.
The double victory in fact followed a long period of planning so meticulous it really did suggest preparations for a moon shot, or some kind of military strike. Mr. Sumii reportedly even imported Australian feed into Japan so his horses would be used to it, their regular soybean mash being forbidden under Australia’s strict quarantine rules. The horses were also shipped to Australia early so they could avoid jet lag.
Japan’s racing fraternity has been sending its best horses to compete in the world’s major races for about a decade now, but with scant success, largely due to problems with acclimatization and adaptability. The stunning result in Melbourne sends a resounding signal that they have figured out how to surmount those problems and that this country’s world-class thoroughbred breeding and training program has finally begun paying off on the racetrack.
Not surprisingly, some Australians expressed ambivalence in the wake of Tuesday’s big Japanese win. The word “raiders” got a lot of press, a reference to the Victoria Racing Club’s controversial choice in recent years to open the Melbourne Cup to all comers. The country’s best-known trainer, Bart Cummings, a man with a record 11 Cup victories to his credit, urged the VRC to make the race an invitation-only event for foreign-trained horses. “We’ve got to do what they do in Japan with the Japan Cup,” Mr. Cummings said. Otherwise, “it’s just going to get worse for the local horses.”
More surprising was the enthusiasm. When Mr. Iwata, Delta Blues’ jockey, wept after the race, the crowd melted — or as the poet Yeats might have put it — “closed in behind” the Japanese horses. The media reports were also largely positive, with the Sydney Morning Herald, in particular, rejecting condemnation of Yoshida as a raider, or interloper, on the local racing scene. Sports writer Craig Young pointed out that Mr. Yoshida “has invested more than $30 million in the Australian racing industry in the past decade,” footing the bills for more than 70 locally born and trained racehorses.
In any case, whatever the politics swirling behind the scenes of Australia’s biggest race, on Tuesday it was all about the magic on the track. And that the Japanese stablemates delivered in spades. Maybe it would make sense to turn Mr. Cummings’ idea on its head: Instead of closing access to the Melbourne Cup, open up access to the Japan Cup. And may the best horses keep on winning.
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